On New Year’s Eve, I stood on a beautiful beach in Thailand and felt heartbroken as hundreds of people let off paper lanterns into the sky without being mindful of where they would end up while others let off fireworks and allowed the remains to wash into the ocean. In the sky, both the lanterns and fireworks looked absolutely gorgeous but while every lantern is made from paper it also has a metal ring at the base that eventually falls from the sky and lands somewhere on earth. As humans, do we spare a moment to think about what ‘somewhere’ looks like? Around a dolphin’s body? Suffocating a turtle? In a whale's stomach?
I was even more horrified to see that people just left the remains (of their failed New Year's wishes) to float into the ocean when their lanterns didn’t even make it past the shoreline. There I was collecting the remains. People probably looked at me strangely but I’m aware that nobody made a difference in this world by blending in. I had a pile of trash at my feet and suddenly I turned around and it was all gone. I panicked for a moment until I saw a little girl that had added my collection to her own. When I tried to explain to her that I was happy to dispose of it, she hesitated and fumbled over her words, in broken English, to eventually, so sweetly, say “I’m trying to save the world”.
This young girl restored a bit of my faith in humanity. If she can make a difference, so can all of us. She inspired me to put together this list of 12 lifestyle changes that we can make to benefit the earth in 2020.
1. Quit Fast Fashion
According to Grace A Forrest there are more than 40 million people subject to modern-day slavery. This term encompasses human trafficking, organ trafficking, forced labour and forced marriage. These are exploitative practises that deny the victims of their basic human rights to freedom. Institutionalised slavery by governments is one form of slavery you may not be able to prevent but you certainly can make a big impact by being aware of blind consumerism. This is not limited to fashion but by thinking about who made your clothes you have power in your choices. Invest in brands that are transparent about their process and who support the basic human rights of their employees. I’ll be doing a post at the end of January on socially responsible fashion brands.
2. Buy Cruelty-Free
I must be honest, I was pretty slow to taking cruelty-free seriously. In my ignorance I kind of just assumed that only makeup brands tested on animals so I changed those products but nearly every product that makes contact with your skin could potentially be tested on animals. Now I turn to Cruelty Free Kitty to research brands before making a purchase. Popular brands like Mac, Bobbi Brown, OB tampons, Aussie and Vaseline still test on animals or fund animal testing by testing on animals where the law requires it. In 2019, China did announce that post-market testing for finished imported and domestically produced cosmetics would no longer include tests on animals however such laws can’t be expected to change overnight so I would still avoid brands that sell in China for the time being. Also, be aware that products that are marked as vegan are not necessarily cruelty-free.
3. Use Bamboo
This is a great way to reduce your plastic consumption. Swapping your plastic toothbrush for a bamboo one means that your toothbrush will decompose rather than remain on earth long after you’re gone. Another easy one to swap out is earbuds. I’ve seen bamboo earbuds at zero waste stores across the world. I would always suggest avoiding single-use items like paper plates and cups but if you have no way of avoiding this to cater for a number of guests, buy bamboo cutlery instead. It looks way nicer too.
4. Think Before You Do
There are literally hundreds of questions you could ask yourself before making a purchase. Do you really need the item? Who made the item? Is the brand you’re buying from socially responsible? When I buy this item am I supporting the planet or harming it? Could I buy this exact item without the plastic packaging? Where does this end up after I’ve used it? Does this product contain pollutants that harm our ecosystems? By having a quick checklist of questions in your head, you will eventually default to making informed and educated purchases. As a result, you will no longer give in to blind consumerism and your buying power will be your vote. The earth will thank you for it.
5. Quit Takeaways
In Asia, I’ve been particularly put off ordering takeaways as they really go to town with the packaging and condiments. For one order, for 2 people, we’ll receive at least 4 plastic tubs, a bag, 6 serviettes, condiments and a full set of plastic cutlery. Another big one is takeaway drinks. Whether a coffee cup or a plastic one, these are easily avoidable nowadays by taking your own cup. I’ve started travelling with my own empty water bottle so that I can ask the air hostess to fill it on the plane rather than ploughing through the little plastic cups. When I land, I then refill the water bottle at the hotel instead of having to buy plastic water bottles.
Growing up, I was so lucky that my parents adopted a recycling culture very early on but I was pretty shocked when I visited other people’s homes to realise they didn’t do the same. When building a new home or renovating your kitchen make sure to allow space for 3-4 recycling bins. If you live in a developing country, your neighbourhood may not have a formal recycling scheme but that’s no excuse because recycling is one of the biggest informal trades happening right now. Look out for the people who are collecting cans and plastic in your area, get to know their schedule and build a relationship with them so you can leave the bag out on the right day. Be mindful that if you aren’t separating your trash for them, they have to rummage through your entire bin to get their livelihoods. Uplift their dignity by simply separating your trash.
7. Pick up Trash
This is especially true when visiting beaches or parks. We don’t know how that trash got there or who’s fault it was. Does it matter? We can be responsible for picking it up. It only takes a few minutes of your time and after a walk on the beach collecting some trash, you’ll feel quite good about yourself because studies say that volunteering and participating in charitable acts boost happiness.
8. Shop Preloved
I’ve harped on this one a lot in some of my previous blog posts where I spoke about kitting out our new kitchen in KL with second-hand homeware. When starting anything new, it’s easy to run to the store and buy all the gear you need but how do you know you’re going to stick with it? Consider buying your new storage baskets, paintbrushes or camera at a thrift store before you go out and buy new ones. That way you can try your new activity out without the big upfront expense or commitment. Buying preloved items also helps to combat fast fashion.
9. Reduce Consumption of Animal Products
In 2019, a groundbreaking study was published that said the single biggest impact you could make for the planet was to start eating a plant-based diet. I recently came across this article that really challenged me on my consumption of eggs. It says that “chickens used for egg production are among the most abused of all farm animals”. I think if we all took a moment to educate ourselves on how animals in the food industry are treated and we actually visualised the gory process in our minds, we’d never want to consume them or their by-products again.
10. Reduce Your Plastic Waste
We should try to reduce our waste in general by practising some of the other tips mentioned in this post but in particular, we should reduce our plastic waste. There are some pretty easy lifestyle changes you can make that will actually save you money too. One way is to choose fresh produce that isn’t wrapped in plastic packaging and making sure you take your own bag to carry them in. If you take the plastic bag from the weigh counter this kind of defeats the point. Wherever possible buy glass instead of plastic. Shop at zero waste stores, they’re popping up in almost every city right now. I especially love buying my detergents and cleaning products from my local ZW store because they’re not harsh on my skin and they are better for our water systems. Be aware of products that are branded with eco buzz words like biodegradable. When something is biodegradable it means it breaks down into smaller pieces and may never completely disappear. What we should be looking for are products that are compostable, meaning they completely break down into non-toxic components.
11. Change The Way You Gift
I’m particularly challenged on receiving gifts these days as I somehow don’t think the gift giver would take it too well if I scrutinized them on whether a garment was organic, fair trade and ethically made or whether a perfume was vegan, chemical-free and cruelty-free. I also felt challenged this Christmas on how to shop and wrap gifts sustainably for friends and family. However, my family gifted me with some awesome sustainable gifts. My mom got me a craft gin from Cape Town which is packed in glass and supports local artisans. Chris is aware of my growing passion for the environment and so for my birthday, he got me all digital gifts. One was Greta Thunberg’’s ebook and the other a year’s pass to MasterClass. How awesome!? He knocked it out of the park!
12. Be Mindful
Probably the most overarching term for this entire post. Be conscious of your choices. At every action and point of purchase, stop and think about its impact on the environment. Think about the food you’re eating and where it comes from. Think about who made your clothes. Think about where your rubbish will end up. My personal goal is to go fully plant-based this year. I’ve managed to be mostly vegetarian for 3 years but I’ve battled to cut out eggs and cheese, so now I’m going to be mindful how the dairy industry treats its animals so that I can cut it out completely. I’m also going to be mindful that my body is going to be lacking some nutrients so I’m going to invest plant based proteins. You get the point, there is a lot to think about at first and I know it can be overwhelming. That’s why I wanted to break this post down into 12 points so that each habit could be formed or strengthened on a month by month basis throughout 2020.
I’m the first person to admit I’m not perfect, some of these tips are also areas I need to implement or improve on. To keep us all account, I’ll be expanding on these 12 tips for each month of this year. If one of the areas is something you have already conquered, great job. Use that month to strengthen your efforts in that area or build upon the previous month’s goal. Wishing you everything of the best for 2020 and your efforts to save the world for the girl on the beach in Krabi and her entire generation.